On June 12th, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and before a huge crowd sent a personal message to the Soviet leader, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
When the Iron Curtain descended across Europe, it had left Berlin as an enclave, administered by four powers. Because subway trains ran across, it provided East Germans an avenue of escape through East Berlin. By 1961, 3.5 million of them had left, comprising approximately 20% of the entire East German population. They tended to be young and well-educated, constituting a brain drain from East Germany.
On August 13th 1961, the border was closed and fenced with barbed wire, and four days later the first concrete blocks were laid to begin the construction of the physical wall. There were in addition chain fences, other walls, minefields, watch-towerrs and other obstacles along the border, and a huge no man's land was cleared to provide a clear line of fire at would-be escapers. The Berlin Wall became a visible symbol of Communist oppression. It served as a prison wall to keep in a captive population.
I went through it once at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing where US tanks had faced down Soviet ones in a tense stand-off. It felt like entering a bleak and drab prison, which it was. Many people were killed trying to escape through the wall, perhaps 150-200. Ingenious methods were sometimes used, including tunnels, hot air balloons and cars equipped as ram-raiders to smash through weaker parts of it.
On that June 12th day in 1987 President Reagan was 12 minutes into his speech when he uttered the electrifying words:
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
It was music to the huge crowd. Just over two years later the wall came down, but it was not done by Mr Gorbachev, but by young people from East and West Berlin. Following months of escape by East Germans to the West via Hungary, crowds in East Berlin began to gather demanding the right to cross. At a press conference, Günter Schabowski, the party boss in East Berlin, misread instructions and mistakenly told the press that permitted access through the wall would take effect immediately. Thousands gathered there and no-one in the East would take the authority to stop them. They surged through, to be greeted with flowers and champagne, and young Berliners from both sides climbed the wall to celebrate together and began to take it down. The rest, as they say, is history.